I’m just giving up on a schedule for these reviews! THEY WILL HAPPEN WHEN THEY HAPPEN. Anyway. I had seen this book around some time ago–maybe while reading another review site, maybe in Amazon’s frequently misguided recommendations list–and scoffed at the summary. I had thought about acquiring it for this blog, but the book was fairly new at the time and I just wasn’t willing to shell out 16 bucks for a likely mediocre story that I would finish in 1.5 sittings. But then some twitter friends mentioned this thing and brought it back in my memory. I tried to see if the library had a copy–no dice. But Amazon had plenty of used copies for almost nothing, so I went ahead and bought one. I did end up reading the whole thing in about 1.5 sittings, and it fulfilled all of my wild dreams of mediocrity, too. The basic plot is this: Maddy Starr (sighs) moves from awesome big-city Boston to lame-o suburbia after her parents divorce. She has to live with her fussy Grandma and attend a whole new school full of ‘Aberzombies’ (sighs again). Any time a book about high school includes the phrase “They pretty much rule the school,” you know you’re going to have a problem. A character utters this deathless proclamation less than twenty pages into this book—right after it’s carefully established that Maddy is Not Like Those Other Girls. She wears goth clothes! She doesn’t shop at American Eagle! She is Very Cool and Alternative, okay. My issue here is that characters like this attempt to relate to ‘non-conforming’ teenagers, to kids who are outcast, lonely, and nerdy. But here’s the thing. After Madeline comes down for her first day wearing her Hot Topic ensemble (and that’s not a sneering joke; that’s actually how she describes her style), her Grandma flips out and forces her to change into a sweater emblazoned with unicorns. It’s a fashion statement that Madeline utterly rejects, because wearing mom jeans and a unicorn sweater is strange, it’s old-fashioned, frumpy and awkward. Unlike her Doc Martens and plaid skirt, it’s not cool. Because Madeline, despite being framed as unusual and out of place, is a very cool girl. She dresses differently than the other kids at her new school, but it’s a matter of chocolate or vanilla, not vanilla or bacon-pineapple-bone dust swirl. H&M and Hot Topic are different brands, but they are both selling to the psyche of the average American teenager. Dressing like Avril Lavigne is a statement of self, but it’s not one that’s going to ensure you have no friends at lunch time. Wearing a unicorn sweater, though? That, especially in this narrative world, is a death sentence. Drawing a sharp distinction among social groups is common practice in stories set in a high school. Plots tend to focus on the conflicts among different stereotypes, though the categories shift over time (for instance, I’ve seen a number of modern high school stories that include ‘bloggers’ as their own clique). I don’t actually find anything wrong with this; you can milk some great satire out of it (i.e. the much beloved Mean Girls). But there’s no satire here. The major issue I take with this story is that it just reads as so horribly disingenuous. It reads as someone desperately pandering to a very specific kind of nerdy alterna-teen. For instance, when a teacher asks if anyone’s read the class assignment:
“I did, nerd that I am. Not that I’d needed to. I’d read the play four times over the last three years and had seen both the 1968 movie and the way-cool Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes modern update. There was just something about the tragic love story that really spoke to me.”
Is this how sixteen year olds talk? Think? I’m feeling doubtful. Most of Maddy’s inner monologue comes off as inorganic, as the product of someone who’s trying to appropriate a shallow idea of youth culture (which, as we know, is ever more centered on ‘nerdy’ pursuits anyway). A complete lack of depth permeates the entire book. Maddy’s enemies are a shadowy, ill-defined clique of people referred to as ‘the Haters’ (seriously?), comprised of a couple of hot, rich girls who receive zero development and two dudes. Dude one is a sexy guy named Chad, for whom Maddy nurses a star-crossed crush. Dude two is an arrogant, nasty bully named Billy, and he spearheads pretty much everything unpleasant that happens to Maddy throughout the story. He engages in over-the-top harassment, like Super Gluing her locker shut, drawing unflattering pictures of her, shoving her to the ground, and calling her ‘Freak Girl’. The guy is a little obsessed, to be honest. So Maddy’s school life is terrible. She takes comfort only in her manga and in the new Fields of Fantasy game her father gave her as a birthday present—an obvious and fairly clear analogue to WoW. While adventuring online, she meets a gallant roleplayer guy who calls himself Sir Leo and happily tanks quest mobs for her (later, he slow walks around the town and praises her elfin beauty). She starts a manga club; she enters a drawing contest at the local library; things look up. She even discovers that her RP buddy is local to her! But WHO COULD IT BE. A less compelling mystery there never was. You’ve probably guessed it based on what I’ve told you already. Hint: it’s the most obvious, least surprising choice. Everything about this pandering pile of nonsense is obvious and unsurprising. Billy is so stereotypically villainous that I’m surprised he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl maniacally at every turn. What’s his motivation? A minor humiliation at the start of the book, in which Maddy’s Grandmother revealed that she knew him when he was but a wee, bed-wetting lad. Everyone laughs about it, but the incident does nothing to upset the social structure or cause any real damage in any way. Yet it apparently fuels Billy’s daily desire to see Maddy brought low. Chad doesn’t agree with Billy’s actions, but he’s too much of a coward to do anything about them (until a heroic moment near the very end of the book, of course). None of these interactions or relationships are carried out with a single shred of thoughtfulness. Chad, as you’ve already surmised, is Maddy’s mystery knight. Personally, I think it would have been much more compelling if the bully was the gallant online hero, because that would then force a reconciliation between his shitty offline behavior and the weird Nice Guy persona he’s built on the Internet. I kept hoping that this would happen, but, as with everything else here, I was disappointed. And that’s the crux of it: I like the premise of this book. I’m in favor of stories about shy nerds and their online pursuits; I’m in favor of stories that cater TO shy nerds. But not stories like this. This isn’t a book; it’s marketing. It’s the product you’d get if you sat a bunch of adults around a boardroom table and asked them what they think the kids are into these days. There’s no genuine exploration of motivations or intentions; nobody is more complicated than they seem to be. And, as I’m sure you all know — because you’re either there right now or you were — teenagers are pretty goddamn complicated. YA deserves better than this. Teenage girls deserve better. It’s just depressing, honestly.